Building on Leadership

I was recently asked what I thought were the best books on the topic of leadership, which is a difficult question to answer. It is almost as difficult to answer as what is my favorite album of all time. There are so many good ones; how does one pick a favorite? To assist me in my answer, I thought I would search the internet for other lists of top works on leadership and compare the search results to books I’ve put in that category. What I discovered was very surprising. There were several classics on the list that one would expect, like Man’s Search for Meaning and How to Win Friends and Influence People. However one book kept coming up on people’s lists that I wouldn’t have classified as a source for the fine art of leadership. Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance, was on most of the lists as a top 10 consideration. How does a book about a failed Antarctic expedition capture the essence of leadership? And how could people in the construction industry benefit from this story?

I read Endurance many years ago because I appreciate works that document the human struggle through adversity. Books like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Into Thin Air, and Unbroken provide me with solace that things could always be worse and that putting up a good fight can often be worth it. Endurance is about a 1914 expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton where 27 men under his command attempted to become the first to cross the Antarctic continent. The expedition failed miserably with the ship getting engulfed in massive ice floes early in the trip, changing the mission to one of survival. The book elegantly documents a 20-month struggle to find food, shelter, safety and eventual rescue. So what are the leadership lessons to be gleaned from this work? There are many, and I think that architects, contractors, developers and owners in the construction industry should practice the main principles in this book as basic business practices.

Choose Your People Wisely

Shackleton took a great deal of time in selecting his crew to join him on the expedition. Although he placed a great deal of emphasis on technical qualifications, he was more interested in the quality of the character than the skill set. Shackleton knew that a grueling expedition would require a group that could function as a team, had high integrity and could be trusted. These same principles determine success in business today. Hiring managers are learning that work ethic and integrity will get you much farther than expertise. It’s more common these days to see sports teams base their recruiting on quality of character rather than the pursuit of the superstar. The best companies in the construction industry are those that are capable of attracting talent that can work together effectively, eliminate drama, embrace a challenge and have fun while doing it.

Your People Come First

Throughout the story of Endurance, Shackleton is focused on making decisions that will save his crew from their devastating circumstances. Every decision he makes is in the best interests of the group. He had to make many personal sacrifices and risk his life throughout the mission to accomplish this feat. Shackleton knew that his motivation and influence on the group’s welfare was not just necessary for survival but, more importantly, it served as a good example for everyone involved. The only way to gain commitment from the team is to show commitment yourself. If your people believe you care for their well-being and success, they are much more likely to display the same care for their work associates. The essence of “we are all in this together” is a powerful force for any business.

Flexibility is Essential for Success

From the very start of the expedition, Shackleton had to change his goals depending upon changes in circumstances. He had to adapt to losing the ship, finding secure refuge, securing food and water, and searching for rescue. He also had to communicate the constantly changing plans to the team so they would cooperate on working toward the tasks at hand. The construction industry is ripe with change. During the latest recession many companies were thrown into survival mode similar to the Endurance team. Changes in the economy, design tastes, market movements, availability of financing, etc., require the construction industry to keep on its toes and adapt to the new challenges. Your ability to change gears in the construction industry can make all the difference in the world.

Maintain Optimism in the Face of Adversity

I am sure Shackleton questioned many times during the group’s travails whether the crew would make it home safely, but he never let anyone know that he doubted their success. He knew that if he displayed any indication of hopelessness, the team would quit the fight, disband or even mutiny. A realistic optimism is essential to survive in business or to grow into new arenas. The construction industry is littered with challenges: legal issues, safety concerns and labor matters, to name a few. Maintaining optimism from the top is essential if it is going to permeate throughout the ranks. Everyone needs to believe that no matter how daunting the challenge, the team is capable of achieving the progress needed to meet their goals.

I still find it amazing that an expedition that occurred more than 100 years ago would serve as a guideline for effective business leadership today. Although I certainly don’t practice all of these principles as effectively as I would like in my daily activities, the voyage of a small crew of adventurers gives me hope to continue the struggle for success. I think that all of us in the construction industry would benefit from reading this book and adopting some of the principles in our day-to-day practices.

About the Author

Brooks Gentleman
Brooks Gentleman has a master's degree in business from Southern Methodist University and a bachelor's degree in economics from Colorado College. He comes to Re-View with 25 years of window experience.

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